By Dave Stancliff
Posted: 08/22/2010 01:26:50 AM PDT
Summer, 1985 -- People were frying eggs on the sidewalk outside the newspaper office. It was a blatant attempt to get me to photograph them.
As the editor of The Desert Trail, a weekly newspaper in Twentynine Palms, Calif., I'd seen my share of filler photos showing how hot it was.
Frying eggs on sidewalks was a passé photographic experience. I wasn't eager to go outside in that 115-degree furnace, either, but I knew it was going to be a big newspaper that week (we had lots of advertising) and I needed extra stories and photos to fill the additional editorial pages that would be available.
About the time I gathered my camera, notebook, keys, and briefcase, a man walked into the office. He was tall, string-bean thin, had long wild looking hair popping out of his skull at all angles and a deep tan laced with road-weary wrinkles.
As he talked with Nell, the secretary at the front desk, I studied him. He showed her a tiny rocking chair and was explaining how he made it out of tin cans when inspiration struck, and I saw an interesting feature story. I enjoyed interviewing people. I'd met a lot of local desert rats who could entertain you for hours with their stories.
I let him finish his spiel to Nell and spoke up. “Excuse me. Would you like to go to lunch and tell me a little more about yourself? I'd like to do a story on you.”
He looked startled for a moment, and then smiled and said, “Sure. My name is John.”
We went to a local Mexican eatery and over lunch he told me his life story. He started by telling me a few childhood experiences. I figured he was about my age, mid-to-late thirties. I asked him if he ever lived in a house after leaving home?
He considered my question between bites of taco. “A few times, for short periods ...” I wondered how he had made a living during his adult years and finally asked, “Those things you make from tin cans are really nice, but surely this hasn't been your only means of supporting yourself?”
He grinned happily and said, “No. I've made lots of things for money and worked in all kinds of jobs.”
When he didn't elaborate I prodded, “Such as?”
He pushed his empty plate aside, took a drink of his sun ice tea, and rattled off his resume: “I mowed estate lawns in Hollywood and weeded them too. I worked as a pump jockey in gas stations from New Mexico to Vermont. I dug holes and hauled rocks in some rural towns in Tennessee with names I couldn't pronounce. I gave blood at blood banks in Florida. I worked as a store greeter, and once as Santa Claus in Ohio. I washed idling car windows in the streets of New York and cut wood in Washington for nearly three years.”
I watched his face light up with memories and it struck me he was a happy man, despite his poor circumstances. He had a knapsack of World War II vintage to hold the sum total of his wealth.
As we walked outside into the blinding light, he mentioned that he would really like to see his sister in Arizona.
I mulled that over and said, “If you can wait until Thursday, when the newspaper comes out, I'll ask readers if anyone is interested in giving you a ride. It couldn't hurt. There's some churches in town that would probably put you up until then.”
He considered my request and replied, “I'll try my thumb, thank you, but if that fails, I'll come by your office on Friday.”
When the newspaper came out, a local resident called and offered to give John a ride. I looked at his photo on the front page, holding that little rocking chair, and wondered if John was already gone? About 10 a.m. Friday, to my surprise, he showed up at the office.
I hooked him up with the kind reader/caller and felt kinda good about the results. Life however, is more complicated than that. The good Samaritan who took John to Arizona showed up the following Monday to tell me John didn't have a sister in Arizona.
As It Stands, I learned a lesson from less-than-honest John, but I don't regret having met him and having the opportunity to listen to his stories.